An oversight allowed a convicted man to walk free for thirteen years. Now the justice system wants to restart the clock.

An oversight allowed a convicted man to walk free for thirteen years. Now the justice system wants to restart the clock.
Courtesy LaQonna Anderson
Cornealious “Mike” Anderson on his wedding day in 2008, six years after he was supposed to have retuned to prison.

UPDATE: After a series of motions filed by his new legal team, a Mississippi County judge freed Cornealious Michael Anderson III on May 5, 2014. The judge counted the thirteen years Anderson was improperly free as "time served" and released him immediately. The Riverfront Times reported in February 2014 that the victim in the 1999 robbery forgave Anderson, a fact that was shared with the court. Anderson and his wife LaQonna walked out of the courthouse together and returned to their home in Webster Groves to be reunited with his children. This story was also turned into a segment for This American Life in February 2014.

Just after dawn on July 25, a phalanx of vehicles parked and blocked traffic on a quiet residential street in Webster Groves. Moments later a team of U.S. marshals piled out, pounded on the door of an unremarkable-looking suburban home and rousted Cornealious "Mike" Anderson from inside.

"You've got the wrong guy," blurted the 36-year-old contractor as the marshals, outfitted in tactical gear and helmets, swept his two-story home. The only person inside was two-year-old Nevaeh, Anderson's youngest daughter, asleep in her crib in the master bedroom. A marshal lifted her out, confused and crying, and carried her downstairs.

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Illustration by Kelly Brother
View a larger version of this week's cover.

By now Anderson — still dressed in his pajamas and handcuffed on the front porch — was in a cold sweat. He warned one of the officers he might pass out. With no one else inside to take the little girl, the marshals allowed Anderson to dial his mother-in-law who lived just down the block. She arrived minutes later with Anderson's six-year-old son, Jorden, who had just awoken from a sleepover with his cousins.

The marshals handed over Nevaeh to her grandmother, and Jorden watched the marshals lead his tearful father away.

As officials were still sorting out where to take Anderson, one of the marshal's cell phones began ringing repeatedly. It was Anderson's wife, LaQonna, who'd been alerted of the arrest while away on a business trip in Oklahoma City. The marshal allowed Anderson a few moments to fill her in.

"Baby, I'm sorry," he told her. "This is something from thirteen years ago. I thought that this was over."

A few hours later Anderson arrived at Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center, a facility 100 miles west of St. Louis that accepts new inmates and sorts them for their eventual permanent homes within the Missouri Department of Corrections. He's been there ever since.

As he sits in the prison's linoleum-floored visitors center, Anderson chokes up recalling what his children saw that morning seven weeks ago.

"I just tell 'em, 'I just got some business to take care of. I'll be home soon,'" he says. "I had to talk to my son. Once they arrested me, his eyes, the look of hatred. Kids don't know what hate is, but if a kid knew what hate was, he knew what it was that day."

For more than a decade, Anderson was supposed to have been in a Missouri prison cell. Instead, through some kind of massive procedural screwup, he was out walking among us. Finding him would have been a trivially easy task for police: He was possibly the worst fugitive of all time. He didn't change his name. He didn't leave town. In fact, his address is just two blocks away from the last one the court system had for him. It is where he built his house from the ground up — the home with the granite countertops and the trampoline out back. He registered his contracting business with the secretary of state to that address.

See also: Cornealious Anderson: How Did Missouri Let Convicted Man Walk Free for 13 Years?

But until this summer the Missouri criminal-justice system seems to have simply forgotten about him, thirteen years after he was sentenced for his role in an armed robbery in St. Charles. Since that time Anderson has not gotten so much as a speeding ticket.

"Wow. That's insane," says St. Charles Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar when he first hears the story. Asked if he has ever heard of anything like it, he says, "Never."

Regardless of the mistake, the DOC now says Anderson still owes time. To his friends and family, Anderson is an ideal father, church member and football coach, and he bears no resemblance to the 22-year-old who was convicted so many years ago. They say he belongs at home.

No one, not Anderson's attorneys nor several legal experts contacted by the Riverfront Times, is quite sure what Anderson's options are, or even if he has any.

"I don't have any clue what happens now," says Michael Wolff, dean of the Saint Louis University School of Law and former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. "I can see that a person wouldn't want to call up and say, 'Remember me? I owe you thirteen years.' And then the real question is: Should we take into account the fact that he apparently has been a good citizen?"

LaQonna Anderson says she knew very little about her husband's past crime until now. A soft-spoken 29-year-old with high cheekbones, she could pass for an even younger woman were the skin under her eyes not ringed with worry. She's not been sleeping or eating properly and has begun to lose weight. Little wonder: She's a suddenly single mother of four with a full-time job as a hotel manager during the day.

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